Not enough space to social distance? Why cities should ban cars and make streets walk/bike only

Manchester, car-free. Image: Andrea Sandor.

I was over the moon when Boris Johnson laid out of the rules of lockdown. Without a balcony or garden, I expected to shrivel under an Italian, Spanish, or French-style lockdown-cum-prison-sentence. I rejoiced that the UK government understood how essential being outdoors is to physical and mental health. Now, however, households have received a letter from the PM warning that lockdown measures could be tightened if necessary.

While there’s no doubt some have flouted social distancing rules, my guess is the vast majority are doing their best to stay two metres apart when out and about. Those who live in crowded cities, however, don’t always have the luxury of space to do this.

Here in Manchester a friend of mine lives in Ancoats, the city’s fashionable new quarter with new apartment blocks but no public park. Unsurprisingly, residents have been taking their daily exercise at New Islington Marina, where it doesn’t take too many to overwhelm the area’s thin strip of nature. My friend’s toddler nearly toppled into the water after a close pass with a jogger attempting to maintain social distance from someone else.

It would be a mistake to tackle this issue by banning outdoor exercise, however. Research tells us what we all know intuitively: time spent outdoors boosts the immune system, reduces stress and anxiety, and improves sleep and focus. It’s critical for getting the population through this crisis in reasonable shape. 

This is why cities around the world are closing roads to traffic so the public have more space to safely walk, run, and cycle. Last week, New York City closed four major roads precisely for the reason of “promoting social distancing and giving people more walking space”. Although the governor had called people failing to follow the social distancing guidelines “arrogant” and “self-destructive”, he recognised the answer wasn’t to clamp down further but to open up space to enable social distancing outdoors. Other American cities have quickly followed suit, with streets being closed to traffic across the country.

Cycling has also taken off under lockdown, with bike shops experiencing a boom in business. After witnessing a surge in cycling as commuters took to their bikes to avoid public transport due to Covid 19, NYC created new pop up bike lanes in Manhattan and Brooklyn. Meanwhile, Mexico City is considering similar measures, and Berlin has widened bike lanes. Bogota is leading the way with the 47 miles of additional cycle lanes they quickly built in response to the crisis. These cities have recognised the potential of the bicycle for commuting and exercise; with fewer cars on the road, expanding cycling capacity is a no brainer. Here in the UK, bike shops have made headlines for their free bike hire schemes to NHS staff.

No UK city, however, has yet taken the step of closing roads to cars, despite a nearly 75 per cent drop in car use since lockdown began. Cities in the US are also still resistant. In Massachusetts, Cambridge City Council delayed a vote on closing a parkway to cars after a minority of councillors objected. One councillor argued encouraging people onto the streets conflicts with orders to “shelter in place” (that is, American for ‘lockdown’), while another made the absurd argument that perspiring runners could endanger senior citizens they pass.

Apart from the obvious health benefits already mentioned, another important reason to close streets to vehicular traffic is to protect pedestrians and cyclists from speeding cars. Empty roads have led to an uptick in speeding that poses a far greater risk to public safety than sweaty joggers. Reckless driving also risks overstretching the NHS even further. This is also why many are arguing speed limits should be reduced.

In cities like NYC and Bogota, some suggest the closed streets and new cycle networks could become permanent after lockdown ends. The coronavirus could be the shock required to reclaim the streets for people, accelerating a trend already taking place around the world. This would help maintain improved air quality levels and move us away from a car-dependent and congestion-ridden society. 

In the immediate future, UK cities must give more streets over to people so city dwellers can weather this storm. Rather than bring in more restrictive lockdown measures and ban our exercise, the first move must be to free up more space for people to safely get outdoors and maintain social distance. Other cities around the world are doing it. When will the UK? 


What's actually in the UK government’s bailout package for Transport for London?

Wood Green Underground station, north London. Image: Getty.

On 14 May, hours before London’s transport authority ran out of money, the British government agreed to a financial rescue package. Many details of that bailout – its size, the fact it was roughly two-thirds cash and one-third loan, many conditions attached – have been known about for weeks. 

But the information was filtered through spokespeople, because the exact terms of the deal had not been published. This was clearly a source of frustration for London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, who stood to take the political heat for some of the ensuing cuts (to free travel for the old or young, say), but had no way of backing up his contention that the British government made him do it.

That changed Tuesday when Transport for London published this month's board papers, which include a copy of the letter in which transport secretary Grant Shapps sets out the exact terms of the bailout deal. You can read the whole thing here, if you’re so minded, but here are the three big things revealed in the new disclosure.

Firstly, there’s some flexibility in the size of the deal. The bailout was reported to be worth £1.6 billion, significantly less than the £1.9 billion that TfL wanted. In his letter, Shapps spells it out: “To the extent that the actual funding shortfall is greater or lesser than £1.6bn then the amount of Extraordinary Grant and TfL borrowing will increase pro rata, up to a maximum of £1.9bn in aggregate or reduce pro rata accordingly”. 

To put that in English, London’s transport network will not be grinding to a halt because the government didn’t believe TfL about how much money it would need. Up to a point, the money will be available without further negotiations.

The second big takeaway from these board papers is that negotiations will be going on anyway. This bail out is meant to keep TfL rolling until 17 October; but because the agency gets around three-quarters of its revenues from fares, and because the pandemic means fares are likely to be depressed for the foreseeable future, it’s not clear what is meant to happen after that. Social distancing, the board papers note, means that the network will only be able to handle 13 to 20% of normal passenger numbers, even when every service is running.

Shapps’ letter doesn’t answer this question, but it does at least give a sense of when an answer may be forthcoming. It promises “an immediate and broad ranging government-led review of TfL’s future financial position and future financial structure”, which will publish detailed recommendations by the end of August. That will take in fares, operating efficiencies, capital expenditure, “the current fiscal devolution arrangements” – basically, everything. 

The third thing we leaned from that letter is that, to the first approximation, every change to London’s transport policy that is now being rushed through was an explicit condition of this deal. Segregated cycle lanes, pavement extensions and road closures? All in there. So are the suspension of free travel for people under 18, or free peak-hours travel for those over 60. So are increases in the level of the congestion charge.

Many of these changes may be unpopular, but we now know they are not being embraced by London’s mayor entirely on their own merit: They’re being pushed by the Department of Transport as a condition of receiving the bailout. No wonder Khan was miffed that the latter hadn’t been published.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.